William Dodd: The U.S. Ambassador In Hitler's Berlin
William Dodd served four years as the ambassador to Germany before resigning -- after repeated clashes with both Nazi Party officials and the State Department. Erik Larson chronicles Dodd's time in Berlin in his new book, In the Garden of Beasts.
Other segments from the episode on May 9, 2011
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William Dodd: The U.S. Ambassador In Hitler's Berlin
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, journalist and author Erik Larson, has written a new book which asks
the question: Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by
Hitler and his regime?
Larson tells the story of William Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin
Roosevelt to serve as the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd, his
wife Mattie and their daughter Martha arrived in Berlin in July, 1933, a few
months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor.
They remained there for four and a half years, but Larson says he focused on
their first year because it coincided with Hitler's ascent from chancellor to
absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain.
Larson is also the author of "Devil in the White City," about a serial killer
who lured his victims to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.
Larson's new book is called "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an
American Family in Hitler's Berlin." Erik Larson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Why did you want to write about the rise of Hitler through the eyes of
Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter?
Mr. ERIK LARSON (Author, "In the Garden of Beasts"): Well, I'll tell you, this
is an idea that just sort of surprised me, actually. This is not my typical
territory. My last three books were set more or less in the Gilded Age, which
is a period that I adore.
But this idea essentially came to me by accident. I'm afraid most of the good
things in my life have come by accident. I went to the bookstore. I was
browsing. I saw "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer and I
thought, OK, that's always been on my life to read. I'll do it. I started
reading, was immediately engrossed, loved it, and the thing that really
appealed to me, that really lit my imagination, was this idea that Shirer was
He met Hitler. He met Goebbels. He met Goering. He met all these characters.
This little flame was sort of lit in my imagination. It was like: What was that
like to have met these people, when you didn't know how all this would turn
We, of course, all have the power of hindsight in our arsenal, but he didn't
What would that have been like as this darkness fell over Germany?
GROSS: Well, the way you describe it, the view in the State Department, when
William Dodd became the first ambassador to Nazi Germany, was that Hitler
wouldn't last long. Why did they think that?
Mr. LARSON: Well, that was a fairly commonly held opinion, especially among the
diplomats who were actually operating in Berlin. Certainly the British
ambassador to Germany also felt that way.
They felt that way because Hitler was such an anomalous character. He was just
so over-the-top chaotic in his approach to statesmanship, in his manner, in the
violence with which - that overwhelmed the country initially in March of 1933.
And I think diplomats around the world, and certainly in the State Department,
felt that something like that simply would not be tolerated by the people of
And that belief, actually, persisted for quite some time. In fact, Ambassador
Dodd still felt quite strongly that Hitler could not last even at the end of
that first year of his in Berlin, when certainly really tumultuous things
happened. So it was a fairly persistent belief.
GROSS: But the FDR administration had been warned in 1933 by George
Messersmith, who was America's consul general for Germany, and he wrote a
dispatch to the State Department in 1933, saying: I wish it were really
possible to make our people at home understand how definitely this martial
spirit is being developed in Germany.
If this government remains in power for another year, and it carries on in the
measure in this direction, it will go far toward making Germany a danger to
world peace for years to come.
And then he goes on: With few exceptions, the men who are running the
government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them
are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.
Those are really strong words.
Mr. LARSON: I know. Isn't that a wonderful quote? Well, Messersmith, for one
thing, was a very perceptive guy. He was way ahead of the curve. He had been in
Berlin quite some time. He had a very good network of sources.
So he had a certain knowledge set that others did not have, especially Dodd
clearly did not have. But even there, it kind of cuts to the same point
because, you know, he's talking about psychopathic characters, and if you saw
them as psychopathic characters, it's not that odd a step to think to yourself:
Well, they can't possibly last, this is just crazy, this is a temporary phase
in the history of Germany. It so happens that Messersmith got it absolutely
GROSS: Now, what did President Roosevelt want Ambassador Dodd to emphasize when
he sent him off to Germany?
Mr. LARSON: Roosevelt's main mandate was essentially for Dodd to stand as a
model of American liberal values in Nazi Germany. Probably the main mission,
frankly, was to have Dodd work on getting Germany to pay back its vast debt to
American creditors as part of the effort to get the country back on track from
the Depression, which of course the country was completely in the grip of the
Depression at that point.
GROSS: And what did President Roosevelt want Dodd to do regarding anti-Semitism
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, you know, that's a very interesting element of this whole
story. He wanted Dodd to address the issue in essentially a less-than-official
manner, the argument being that this was, of course, shameful, Germany's
treatment of Jews, but it was not necessarily something that America should get
involved with on an official level.
GROSS: So when Ambassador Dodd and his family first get to Berlin, July 13,
1933, Hitler is chancellor, but there's still somebody else, von Hindenburg,
who's the president. So Hitler hasn't yet assumed complete control of Germany.
But the Gestapo has been formed. Things are really tightening, especially for
the Jews, and the Nazis recently introduced the coordination campaign. What was
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, that was something that I found really intriguing, something
that I had never in my past education really come across. But this was â this
was a more or less formal campaign to get everybody to fall into line with Nazi
What it evoked for me, frankly, is an old horror film, "Invasion of the Body
Snatchers," you know, where the lead characters leaves town for a while, comes
back and finds everything has changed. Everybody has changed. They look
different. They dress different.
It was not unlike that, actually. People from - who had left, let's say, Berlin
for an extended trip abroad, who came back after the coordination was underway,
found their towns, their neighbors, changed in ways both subtle and really very
I mean, people would even be dressing different. They'd have different
haircuts. They'd be - you know, the town looked different. There would be a
Nazi banner hanging from a building.
And the point of the coordination was to get everybody essentially in line, and
one result of this coordination campaign was that if somebody - let's say I
lived next to somebody who I felt was not - was not really with the program, I
could, and would, report him to the Gestapo, and they would call him in and
If they felt that he was an opponent of the state, who knows? He might end up
in one of the new â one of the new camps for people like that. So there was
this real pressure, subtle, ground-up pressure, ground-up and also from the top
down, there was this command to have everybody conform.
And it was just so, so broadly and enthusiastically embraced by the populous,
this idea of so-called self-coordination, that people began very avidly
denouncing their friends, their peers, their teachers and so forth, for not
doing certain important things.
One of the most important things was to issue the so-called Hitler salute at
certain times and in response to - in response to being offered the salute by
others. If you didn't, you were out of conformity, and you could conceivably be
reported to the Gestapo, even for something as simple as that.
GROSS: My guest is Erik Larson. His new book is called "In the Garden of
Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Erik Larson. We're talking about
his new book "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in
And the family that he's writing about is the Dodd family. William Dodd was the
first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. His family arrived in Berlin in
So Ambassador Dodd gets to Nazi Germany, things are really tightening. There's
- you have to give the Nazi salute. You have to obey certain rules or else
you're going to get beaten up or sent to a camp. Neighbors are tattling on
And for some reason he's convinced that the government is growing more
moderate. Why would he think that?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, you have to sort of put yourself in Dodd's position, with
Dodd's background, his training as a historian. So Dodd arrives in Berlin, and
among the people he first meets is the foreign minister, von Neurath, who was
in fact very much a moderate and actually was rather deeply opposed to Hitler
and the Nazis.
In fact, a friend of his once wrote that what he would really most like is to
wake up one day and find Hitler gone. So Dodd had encounters with people like
that. And you know, putting two and two together, here's this crazy psychopath
Hitler. Here are these men at just below the level of Hitler, Goering and
Goebbels, who seemed really rather not just moderate but in many ways they
seemed almost opposed to Nazi ideology.
I mean, there was von Neurath. There was the president of the Reichsbank. So he
had these encounters with people, and he was essentially thinking that, you
know, if you have this moderation at that important level of the government,
you have this new psychopathic leader, but now things are getting under
control, his belief was that surely these lower echelon gentlemen would begin
to exercise a moderating power over the top leadership, that as the top
leadership became more confident of their control, became more widely accepted
by international statesmen and so forth, that things would calm down. That was
his belief initially.
GROSS: And meanwhile his daughter, who was in her 20s and, you know, had
several affairs while she was in Germany, she had an affair with the first head
of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
Mr. LARSON: Correct, yeah.
GROSS: And she was swept away by what she thought of as the Nazi revolution.
Why did she see that as being something romantic?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, again part of it was personal context. Part of it is also she
shared a view that actually many did share with regard to the so-called Nazi
revolution, the idea that Hitler was at last getting Germany in line and was
helping to revive this once-vibrant nation.
But here's the thing: I mean, here is Martha Dodd. She's 24 years old. She's a
very attractive young woman who has - she had this power really to inflame the
passions of men.
So she arrives in Berlin. She is - she is extricating herself at that point
from a dead marriage to a banker, a New York banker who goes by the name
Bassett(ph). She's extricating herself from this essentially one-year debacle
of a marriage.
She comes to Berlin with her father. She's 24 years old, experienced sexually,
and she sees this as a remarkable, vibrant, charismatic city, not the kind of
thing that we perceive it to today, through hindsight.
She arrives in Berlin, she sees a city of glittering parties. She sees these
fantastic cafes, some of which will seat over 1,000 people. She sees the street
life, the trams, the cars, the whole thing. And to her it is just one of the
most compelling things she's ever experienced.
And she wonders, right away, at the contrast between what the press back home
is reporting and what she's experiencing. It's like: Wait, wait, what's the
deal here? Why is - why are those press reports so seemingly wrong? So that's
how she starts off.
GROSS: Martha starts to change her mind a little bit about how glamorous and
romantic Berlin is when she sees stormtroopers dragging a girl through the
street with a placard around her neck. What does the placard say?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, the placard says, as best she can translate it, says: I have
offered myself to a Jew. And at first - she's traveling with a correspondent
friend and her brother and they arrive in Nuremberg, they arrive rather late at
night, and the city is full of street life, which surprises the correspondent
because he thought the place was supposed to be pretty dead at night.
And suddenly this parade appears of stormtroopers, and they're leading -
they're carrying some creatures, her first view - she has no idea who is being
brought along. They're carrying some creature between them, these two very
And mind you, this is a very chilling scene. There is this parade. There's a
loud sort of raucous band playing, also stormtroopers. They're carrying
torches. So you've got the torchlight, you know, being reflected off the faces
of buildings and so forth.
Here comes this parade. The streets are jammed with people who are watching
this parade, and it turns out that what's being carried between these
stormtroopers is a young woman, her head shaved, her face powdered, who wears
this sign saying: I have offered myself to a Jew.
And she is being persecuted for that act. She's being dragged through the city.
She was dragged into the lobby of the hotel, dragged back out, and so forth.
So Martha sees this display, but interestingly, Martha's first reaction is not
repulsion. Her first reaction is: OK, this is an act of excess due to the over-
enthusiasm of German youth, of the German revival. This is just an aberrant
moment. Surely there is some explanation.
GROSS: But she sees more stuff like this as time goes on.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. I mean, as time goes on, I mean, she becomes quite aware that
something very scary is happening, and partly she comes to that realization
through her relationship with the chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
And we have to make a very important qualification here. This is Rudolf Diels,
the first chief of the Gestapo. He lasted in that job essentially a year, and
he was replaced by some very scary people, obviously - Himmler and Reinhard
But what she learned from Diels, who was no angel, I mean, you know, the
diplomats in Berlin felt he was essentially a moral character, had a lot of
integrity, and they actually liked him and could work with him. But at the same
time, this is a guy who presided over an agency that was busily torturing and
in some cases killing people. So you know, obviously he's not the nicest guy on
What happened is that through her relational with Diels, she came to see this
network of official terror and espionage, surveillance. One day she walks into
Diels's office, according to her account, her memoir - one day she walks into
Diels's office and finds him sitting on his desk, and his desk it littered with
what she describes as dictaphones, recording devices, that have been deployed
to listen in to conversations, telephone conversations, whatever.
And so she gradually does come to a realization that this is not the benign
revolution that she had first thought.
GROSS: Ambassador William Dodd starts to realize that things are getting very
dangerous in Nazi Germany, and he wants to, you know, register some kind of
protest. For example, he's invited to a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, and he wants
to decline. He wants to make a statement by declining but not so strong a
statement that he'll be endangered by it or condemned for it.
So he suggests to several European ambassadors that they decline the invitation
as well. So they all end up declining. And then the State Department in the
U.S. sees this as a needlessly provocative gesture.
Mr. LARSON: Yes, yes. I found that a very â a very striking episode. You know,
here's Dodd, who - he's trying to fulfill Roosevelt's mandate of being a
standing model of American liberal values. But he knows that he's somewhat
limited by diplomatic protocol in what he can do.
So he does something very simple. He decides: OK, I am not going to go to this
festival of Nazi power and extremism in Nuremberg. I am going to come up with a
reason for not going, and I'm going to try and persuade France and Britain also
to not go.
Seems like a very reasonable sort of thing to do. The State Department feels
that, you know, this is needlessly provocative, that your role is to report and
monitor and to maintain a relationship with the powers in Nazi Germany.
So poor Dodd. Even something as simple as that gets him in hot water with the
State Department. And it kind of cuts to - really, if there's an underlying
message in the whole story of Dodd and his daughter in Berlin in that era, it's
that it sheds a very interesting light on what we all think of and talk perhaps
too blithely of appeasement, how that came to be. I think all this stuff sheds
light on that.
GROSS: So meanwhile, back at the State Department, you write that some of the
people in the State Department actually held anti-Semitic views. You quote
William Phillips(ph), undersecretary of state, as describing in his diary
Atlantic City as being, quote, "infested with Jews."
He writes: In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was
an extraordinary sight, very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered
with slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.
And then William J. Carr(ph), an assistant secretary of state, called Jews
kikes, and then he wrote, after a trip to Detroit, that the city was full of,
quote, "dust, smoke, dirt and Jews."
I was really shocked to read that.
Mr. LARSON: I was â I was shocked as well. Shocked, but then I took a step back
and sort of had to temper my shock because as hard as it may seem to imagine
now, today, in that era there was I guess what you might be able to describe as
kind of an ambient anti-Semitism that was embraced by many in America, many in
Dodd himself was - exhibited aspects like that as well. I mean, for example,
there's one astonishing moment where Dodd writes to the State Department to
complain about the fact that he in Berlin has too many Jews on his staff and
this is interfering with his ability to deal with the Nazis.
And apparently one particular problem was his receptionist at the embassy was
ardently anti-Nazi and that this caused all kinds of problems with visitors
from the Nazi regime.
But anyway, there was this ambient anti-Semitism that is shocking as we look at
it today but would not have been shocking in that period. I mean, after all,
these guys are writing these things in their personal and diplomatic diaries
with the expectation that one day these things will be read.
GROSS: So they're not ashamed to say this.
Mr. LARSON: They're not ashamed at all.
GROSS: Erik Larson will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is
called "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in
Hitler's Berlin." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Erik Larson. We're talking
about the rise of Hitler from chancellor to absolute tyrant. Larson's new book
tells that story through the eyes of the first American ambassador to Nazi
Germany, William Dodd. Dodd arrived in Berlin with his wife Mattie and daughter
Martha in 1933. At first, Dodd thought Hitler wouldn't last. It took a while
before Dodd realized how dangerous Hitler was for Germany and the world.
Larson's new book is called "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an
American Family in Hitler's Berlin."
Among the really interesting things in your book is your descriptions of
Ambassador Dodd's meetings with Hitler. Let me start with this one. He meets
with Hitler and he asks Hitler why Hitler has pulled Germany from the League of
Nations, and Hitler gets really angry. Describe that meeting.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Yeah. So Dodd goes to see Hitler and I believe that's his
first of two of the early meetings with Hitler. So he goes to meet Hitler and
on the one hand Hitler seems actually very much an ordinary guy. He's dressed
in a plain old business suit. Dodd in fact writes in his diary I think after
that meeting, he says that he looks a lot better in person than he looks in
newspaper photographs. So here's this guy who at least is presenting himself to
Dodd as a cordial sane statesman.
At intervals during that meeting, and this question about why Germany would
pull itself from the League of Nations is one of those moments. Suddenly,
suddenly, this ordinary statesman becomes just absolutely vehement, savage,
outspoken in a way that really kind of takes Dodd aback. And that should have
been Dodd's first clue that there was something really extraordinarily wrong
Something very similar happens when Dodd - when the question comes up about
Jews, and Hitler again completely loses it. In fact, at the second meeting
that's when Hitler explodes and he says, he says, you know, that all the
criticism of Germany is coming from and inspired by Jews and that he is going
to â if it continues he's going to make an end to them. That's the chilling
GROSS: Yeah, you said if they continued activity we shall make a complete end
to all of them in this country. That's foreshadowing the Final Solution. And
does Dodd pick up on that? Is Dodd thinking at that point extermination of the
Mr. LARSON: No.
GROSS: Or he thinking like hyperbole?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Exactly. At that moment, Dodd the rationalist, Dodd the
student of history, he hears a remark like that and he doesn't think that
Hitler truly means, he doesn't take it seriously because my God, who could
possibly even think about something like - who could possibly ever act on
something like that? You know, remember this is early. This is very early in
the march toward the Holocaust, so I don't think I took it at all seriously.
Dodd eventually gets the point.
GROSS: Something else that shocks me about this meeting is how Ambassador Dodd
starts trying to talk to Hitler about how Hitler can address the, quote,
"Jewish problem" in a more peaceful diplomatic way. So Dodd reports in his
writings that he told Hitler, you know, there's a Jewish problem in other
And then he describes how the U.S. State Department was providing unofficial
encouragement to a new organization established by the League of Nations to
relocate Jews quote, "without too much suffering," unquote. And then he goes on
to tell Hitler that while the question of over-activity of Jews in university
or official life may trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in
such a way as to not give great offense.
And he tells Hitler that wealthy Jews had continued to support institutions
which had limited the number of Jews who held high positions. Basically
endorsing anti-Semitism and just suggesting that they go about it in a more
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I especially like what comes next in the
memorandum that Dodd filed on that conversation where he says, quote, he says
"my idea was to suggest a different procedure from that which has been followed
here." Of course, never giving pointed advice.
What he's saying is essentially, you know, in Germany they've been trying to
resolve a problem that, of course, everybody recognizes as a problem, but
they've been doing it the wrong way. They've been using violence and there are
other ways to solve this so-called problem, which is very strange. Strange to
us now but at the time I think, you know, this is again, this is Dodd who is
writing this in a memorandum to the State Department knowing that, you know,
this could become a public document. I mean it's extraordinary to me.
GROSS: Something else that interested me in his memorandum to the State
Department is he writes: Hitler is romantic-minded and half-informed about
great historical events and men in Germany. That half-informed about historical
events I found fascinating because I think when you're half-informed about
history and you have a lot of power you can make a lot of decisions based on
that half information.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And make really powerful wrong decisions.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Yeah. No, absolutely. I thought that was - it was quite
perceptive of Dodd I think to pick up on that. You know, I think that probably
appalled Dodd, frankly, much more than Hitler's views about Jews...
GROSS: Well he was a professor of history so...
Mr. LARSON: Yes. Exactly.
GROSS: ...so that's really hitting home for him.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So things keep getting darker...
Mr. LARSON: Right.
GROSS: ...more scary in Germany and then summer of 1934 you have what's been
know as the Night of the Long Knives. This was this purge. Why don't you
describe what this purge was about and tell us if it directly affected
Ambassador Dodd and his family.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. This was - this Night of the Long Knives was, first of all,
it was a horrific event that took place over the space of a weekend in 1934.
June 30, 1934 is when it began.
We today, we tend to think back to this era as if it were essentially one
homogeneous block of Nazi unity and so forth. But, in fact, in that first year
in Germany, in the first year of Hitler's rule, a real antagonism had grown up
between Hitler and a longtime friend who had helped in his rise and who was now
the head of this vast organization of stormtroopers, Ernst Rohm.
So there was a conflict between these two and it was starting to look like this
conflict could conceivably rattle or reduce Hitler's control over the party,
over Germany's government. He didn't want to share power with anybody, even
this longtime friend.
And so he and Goering and Goebbels began this quiet planning for what became
this weekend purge in which hundreds of probably quite loyal Nazis and
stormtroopers and so forth were simply murdered, executed in the course of a
weekend. Some estimates range as high as 700 people killed.
And many of these people - well, not many, but a number of these people where
people the Dodds knew, people who had been to their home for dinner, people
that they encountered at parties and so forth. This seemed to be the moment
when Dodd got it, when Dodd at last understood the true pathological nature of
GROSS: What did he do in response? Did he send anything to the State Department
back in the U.S.?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. I mean he tried to convey his horror â his sense of horror to
the State Department. And what the State Department's response was, look, we
don't really care about this. What we care about is German debt. Could you
please start acting on getting Germany to pay back its debt to American
It was almost as though back in America that they just wrote this off as just
some sort of, you know, weekend excursion of the Nazis, not a big deal, not
something to worry about, but let's get back to work on the debt. And here Dodd
was in Berlin just shaken absolutely by the bloodshed.
GROSS: So by the time he leaves in December of 1937, Germany has really taken
its physical toll on him. He has severe headaches, some of which last weeks, he
has severe digestive problem, but he leaves. So it's 1937, does the State
Department replace him with another ambassador?
Mr. LARSON: The State Department does replace with another ambassador. It
replaces him with a very interesting choice, a fellow named Hugh Wilson, who
one person - one source described as a man intent on waging his own personal
Hugh Wilson was a classic example of somebody who was somewhat in sympathy with
the Nazi regime, with the Nazi revolution and, you know, wholly the opposite of
what Dodd was. This was the classic old-school diplomat, the go-along-get-along
guy who really was very sympathetic to Hitler.
GROSS: He was really very sympathetic to Hitler?
Mr. LARSON: To Hitler. Hugh Wilson was.
GROSS: Did he remain that way?
Mr. LARSON: No. The thing that actually changed Hugh Wilson, you know, these
various epiphanic events have influences on everybody. But the thing that
changed him was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when the horrific
pogrom waged by the official pogrom against the Jews.
GROSS: When the windows of stores...
Mr. LARSON: Where windows and...
GROSS: ...run by Jewish people and homes were smashed. Yeah.
Mr. LARSON: Synagogues were burned and, yes. Yeah, that changed Hugh Wilson.
That horrified him.
Mr. LARSON: Even he got the point.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Erik Larson. We're talking about
his new book, "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in
Hitler's Berlin." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Erik Larson. His new book is
called "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in
Hitler's Berlin." The family that he's writing about is the family of William
Dodd. Dodd was the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. He and his family
arrived in Berlin in 1933.
Now you say in your book that you did not realize as you ventured into those
dark days of Hitler's rule, how much the darkness would infiltrate your own
soul. How did it get to you? I could see how it would get to you, but what
impact did it have on you?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Well, this was a curious thing for me because usually I kind
of pride myself on having a sort of a journalistic remove. For example, in my
book "The Devil in the White City," people often ask me well, was I - didn't I
have nightmares? Wasn't I horrified by the nature of that serial killer? And my
answer was always well, you know, I always wear two hats. There's the one that
says, oh gosh, this is horrific, and wow, you know, how sad for these people
and so forth. And then there's the other part that says, wow, but this is great
stuff. This is going to be really fun to write, you know?
But in this case, something very different happened and it did surprise me. I
found myself sort of almost entering kind of a low-grade depression. I mean
there's just something so relentless and so foul about Hitler and his people,
and this sort of the way things progressed from year to year. It just got to me
in the strangest way.
And I think it might be simply the function of if you immerse yourself deeply
enough in something like this, if you read Holocaust literature, if you read
some of these memoirs, it's just really, really scary and depressing.
And where I kind of hit the wall was when I had pretty much completed the bulk
of my mainstream historical reading on the subject. But the point where I hit
the wall was a book that came out actually in the last couple of years and I
figured I'd better read it, keep up to date was Richard Evans's "The Third
Reich at War."
And that's where I just really â here in that book he talks about, for example,
the Russian campaign where, you know, 10,000 people would be killed in a day.
He talks about the fact that even after Germany knew full well that it was
losing the war it continued the systematic - and that's the key word - the
systematic deportation and elimination of Jews in Eastern countries. The
twisted idea being that even if Germany lost at least then there would be less
of a Jewish problem later down the road. I mean it's just extraordinary evil to
me. Happily the book is done. I'm feeling much better.
GROSS: I think one of the reasons why the story you've chosen to tell is so
interesting is that we know now that Germany was this terrible threat both to
Germans and to the world, but not everybody realized that in the early days of
the Nazi regime. And that's when your book is set, in those early days. And it
really raises the question: How can you tell when a group of extremists is a
genuine serious threat and when they're just kind of fringy people who are
going to come and go and they're best left ignored?
Now once you've risen to the position of chancellor you can't really ignore,
say, Hitler. But nevertheless, as you point out, a lot of people thought, this
regime isn't going to last. You know, they're extremists; it's not going to
last long. Did writing this book make you think a lot about when do you take
extremists seriously and when do you dismiss them?
Mr. LARSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, going back to sort of the
initial conception for this book, you know, the immediate trigger was reading
"The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," and suddenly having that sort of light
go on in my mind. But I read that also at a time when I was feeling â I was
feeling sort of kind of uneasy about how things were going in this country.
It troubled me that, you know, we had these reports of torture of detainees. We
had people jailed at Guantanamo Bay, who couldn't even talk to their lawyers
and couldn't see the evidence against them. Certain sort of fundamental
bedrock, civil liberties, things that I don't care what your party is that, you
know, I grew up - I went to public school on Long Island and, you know, it
seemed to me like every year we were being taught that, you know, you had the
right to confront your accuser, you know, the right to a speedy trial, all this
And so there was this kind of vague feeling I had in the background that also
kind of fed into the book. It's like well, what was that like to experience a
real extreme version of that, a really extreme version which, of course, was
the whole situation in Nazi Germany. So yeah, it made me wonder, you know, what
allows a culture to slip its mores like that readily? And how do you recognize
it? I don't know.
GROSS: Now I have a question for you about how you write history. In your book
"In The Garden of the Beast," when something's in quotes it's because you're
quoting a document, you know, a memoir or a diplomatic cable, a journal, but
there isn't like dialogue in it. You know, some histories are written as if the
writer were there at the scene overhearing what was said and can therefore put
it all in quotes.
Mr. LARSON: You mean somebody who tries to make up dialogue?
GROSS: Well, histories that have become a little overly novelistic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LARSON: Yes. No, no, no. No, I know what - that's why I'm very careful with
my books to disclose up front that anything between quotes comes from a
historical document, be it a memoir, a diary, a transcript, be it an interview
in a newspaper, something. There is no dialogue per se unless there was
dialogue reported by somebody in a document. For example, Dodd's dialogue with
Hitler or other kinds of things like that. There is nothing, nothing made up
about dialogue or otherwise.
I can't - I actually if I read a book and I see that somebody has taken the
liberty of, if it's a nonfiction book, of composing dialogue based on what they
think is likely to have occurred with no other basis for it, I mean I just lose
GROSS: Why did you go from journalism to history, from reporting on
contemporary events to events of the past?
Mr. LARSON: I think a big part of it is that I like dealing with dead people. I
don't want that to sound too glib, but what I mean is that I like - and I've
always liked it - I like deep historical research that takes you into archives,
documents and so forth. It just suits me. It suits my personality.
And one thing I kind of realized as a journalist - I mean, I love journalism
and I loved - I was good at it and I did well. But one thing I realized is that
I didn't - it was inherently a conflict for me to call people up out of the
blue and insert myself and my newspaper into their lives. It was always hard
for me to do on some level. And I think I, frankly, I think I eventually burned
out on that kind of thing and that was part of it.
But I also have to say journalism was a daily thing, although when I worked at
the Wall Street Journal it was - I had the luxury of often working, you know,
weeks on a story. But still, there was always this constant presence, deadlines
and so forth, and in the end you had a piece that survived for maybe 24 hours,
maybe 48 hours. And if you happened to be nominated for a Pulitzer or something
well, it lasted a little longer.
But, the beauty of writing books now for me is that I get to spend a long time
with something. Once I've done all the research, I get to take that material
and try to create the best narrative that I can out of it. Again, not making
anything up, but I try to deploy the tools of fiction, if you will, suspense,
foreshadowing and so forth, to make that story come alive. And I find it
immensely satisfying, immensely satisfying.
GROSS: Erik Larson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LARSON: My pleasure.
GROSS: Erik Larson's new book is called "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror
and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin." You can read an excerpt on our
Coming up, a few bad apples, exactly what do they do? What are they responsible
for? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg examines the changing meaning of an old proverb
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Bad Apple Proverbs: There's One In Every Bunch
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
One or two rogue cops, a few greedy financiers, some sadistic soldiers, just a
few bad apples. That's usually the first line of defense whenever some
wrongdoing is uncovered in a group. But our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, wonders if
people know what the idiom really means.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Proverbs are like other traditions, they owe their longevity to
how easy it is to reinterpret what they mean. Take a rolling stone gathers no
moss. It clearly suggests some traditional wisdom about travel, but what? The
Scots think it means moving around keeps you fresh and free. The English use it
to mean moving around keeps you poor and rootless. And Americans use it both
ways and some others. Take it one way or the other, it can't help being wise.
Or take the one about a few bad apples, the reflexive defense whenever
misconduct surfaces in the midst of some organization, from Enron to Abu Ghraib
to Haditha to the mortgage meltdown. It's an ancient bit of counsel, whether
it's said of bad apples or rotten ones, or of bushels, barrels, baskets or
bins. Benjamin Franklin had it as the rotten apple spoils his companion, which
goes back to Shakespeare's time.
It has the sound of a metaphor that's grounded in the facts of everyday life,
like a fish rots from the head down. Or at least it used to be, back when
people had to pick through their pippins before they put them up for the
winter. That's not a concern for most of us now. The only bins of apples we see
are at the supermarket, and the rotten ones don't make it that far. And we
don't worry about long-term storage. We just buy as many as we need for the
moment; whatever the season, we can get fresh ones next week.
So you might figure that the proverb would have become obsolete along with
others from the forgotten agrarian past, like it's a good apple tree that has
the most sticks under it. Instead, it turns out to be much more frequent than
it was a few generations ago.
But as the memory of rotting apples fades, the meaning of the bad apple proverb
has changed. In 19th century America, it was a staple of Sunday morning
sermons: As one bad apple spoils the others, so you must show no quarter to sin
or sinners. Or it could suggest that finding one malefactor in a group should
make you suspicious of everybody else. A bad apple spoils the bin, one
journalist wrote in 1898 of the Dreyfus Affair; if one officer is capable of
forgery then why wouldn't others be as well?
Back then, nobody ever talked about just a few bad apples or only a few rotten
apples; the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group. These
days, those are the phrases people use to imply that some misdeeds were an
isolated incident - a couple of rogue cops, a handful of unprincipled loan
officers, two or three sociopathic soldiers.
Then there's the version that goes, there are always going to be a few bad
apples. That's a counsel of moral realism: as in, there's evil in the world;
get over it. It's not a sentiment you would have heard in a 19th century
sermon, much less from a grocer you were complaining to about the wormy fruit
he'd sold you the week before. Well, Mrs. Gold, we all have to expect to find a
few rotten apples, don't we?
The crucial historical flipping point for the proverb may well have been in
1970 when The Osmond Brothers reversed its meaning in their first number one
hit, "One Bad Apple Don't Spoil the Whole Bunch." At any rate, that seems to be
how a lot of people think the proverb goes nowadays, whether or not it makes
But it's curious that the proverb became so much more popular now that its
meaning has flipped, particularly because in general we don't use proverbs as
much as our ancestors did. We tend to roll our eyes at people who pepper their
conversations with maxims like a penny saved is a penny earned and a stitch in
time saves nine. In fact, it sometimes seems that the main reason for keeping
these old proverbs around is so that we can ring clever changes on them. You
think of Groucho Marx's home is where you hang your head or George S. Kaufman's
one man's Mede is another man's Persian.
But a proverb can still come in handy now and again, particularly when we find
ourselves on the conversational defensive, when the reputation of a group has
been compromised by the misdeeds of some of its members. We could answer those
imputations by denying the logic of induction: Seeing one or two black crows
doesn't mean the whole flock is black.
But it can be a more effective defense to offer a proverb that closes down the
discussion with a bit of venerable folk wisdom; in this case, the one about not
letting a few rotten apples spoil the bushel.
As it happens, that's nothing like what the proverb meant to those venerable
folk who coined it, who actually knew their apples. But proverbs fly too low to
the ground to be examined or questioned. They're there to replace reflection
with packaged verities. That's how they can come to signify opposite things
without losing a whit of their wisdom in the process. As the French put it:
Proverb ne peut mentir, a proverb can't lie. But of course that's a proverb
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California, Berkeley. You can download podcasts of our show
on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
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